River Queens is a memoir. Alexander and Dale bought then reconditioned a 1955 wooden Chris-Craft Connie pleasure boat before taking it on an adventure. They began in Dallas, Texas; the boat trip took them from Oklahoma along the Arkansas, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers until they reached the outskirts of Cincinnati.
Alexander and Dale already had experience in restoration and engineering which greatly helped. The boat was from a bygone era which brought out the real boating enthusiasts who lent a hand with advice and repairs. The men discovered a boating community and a part of America which those travelling along the highways would never see.
I don’t know anything about boats, but I could follow much of the technical terminology. Once the duo were underway on their trip, the snippets of information about the rivers, the river-folk and the marinas brought the pages to life. The slower pace of river life made this a relaxing read. One point I did find a little hard to read was the inclusion of full colloquial dialogue of minor characters. As a reader from across the Atlantic, I would have preferred just a suggestion of the local dialect; I’d have understood the gist and read the dialogue with my best interpretation of the twang, but more importantly it would have made those sections flow better.
Overall an interesting book; I got out my map of the American States on numerous occasions so that I could follow their trip. It was one of those life time experiences that many seek. For Alexander it was his version of ‘The American Dream’.
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The river-any river-is another planet, with its own language, rules, and culture. River Queens is a story of the unlikeliest of fellows (and a dog) coming to the river-and what happens to them once they arrive. At first glance, it seems to be a how-to manual for any adventuresome (but perhaps foolhardy) type who’s ever thought of restoring a wooden yacht and sailing it halfway across the country. Second glance, however, shows that it’s a classic travel narrative in which two intrepid (but perhaps foolhardy) explorers head out to tour what is usually called “a distant, alien world.” To Alexander Watson and his partner, Dale Harris, the river is as exotic as any foreign locale they’d previously traversed. There is danger, of course- unpredictable nature, lurking water hazards, quickly rising human squalls but the initial difficulty is language: can they become fluent in the argot of harbormasters, helmsmen, navigators, and the various deck hands, skippers, and swabbies? The language of river people is gloriously colorful and idiosyncratic, and Watson has a gift for capturing it. River talk is the animated essence of River Queens, in which these typically hard-working people are rendered so specifically, in all their salty humanity, that they become a kind of tribe, passing Watson and Harris along from outpost to outpost, encumbered by their hospitality. This is the genius of River Queens, in which Watson’s sensibility is so adroit that he captures perfectly the two sides of America that seem elsewhere on permanent outs. Here on the river, though, they become assembled in a near-perfect unity, displaying a charity that seems to be missing on the inland geography. With happy authority and never a condescending glance (well, only where one is deserved), Captain Watson gives us a striking, often hilarious picture of river life, elevating its savvy inhabitants into the first rank of admirable Americans and showing us finally how little divided America actually can be. River Queens is at once a romance of men and the river, a fantasy come to life, an unparalleled adventure story, one of the best travel journals around and a glad picture for our turbulent times.